Concerns over BNP density

As the Japantown Better Neighborhood Plan (BNP) Organizing Committee finalizes the draft of the BNP for the final public hearing, a new recommendation has raised some concerns among committee members. Revisions to the draft will be presented to the community on Saturday, Sept. 10.

Paul Wermer, a Pacific Heights resident in San Francisco who works as a sustainability consultant, suggested that density limits be removed from a proposed Japantown Neighborhood Commercial District (NCD). The proposed NCD is comprised of the three Japan Center Malls, the southern half of the two blocks facing Post Street between Webster and Laguna and the businesses lining Buchanan Street up to the Hotel Tomo.

According to Wermer, the current zoning laws for the mixed use buildings limit the number of units allowed on a plot of land based on the square footage of the plot.

“The average plot on Post Street is 25 feet by 100 feet,” said Wermer. “In a RM-2 zone, you can have one unit of housing for every 600 square feet, that’s four units on the average plot.”

With current building height limits, buildings on Post Street may be up to 50 feet high or five stories tall. According to Wermer, with the first story reserved for commercial use, should a developer choose to build four more stories above the ground floor, the building would house one large apartment on each floor.

Hiroshi Fukuda of the Japantown BNP Organizing Committee wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that, while the removal of density limits would not be significant because the current proposed Japantown NCD is relatively small, he showed concern about further expansion to other areas of the neighborhood. He cited Wermer as having said that he “would like to see it extended up to California Street.”

The proposed changes to the density limits would allow developers to have more apartments or housing units per plot. “RH-2 (duplexes) and RH-3 (a house with three units) buildings could be modified to provide two or three times as many units (a total of six units per dwelling) than it is presently allowed without additional parking,” Fukuda said.

Wermer said he hoped to make more units by doing away with the current density limits and instead, favoring guidelines based on what living amenities each unit should come with, such as those based on natural lighting or usable living space to provide a good quality of life to more people — mainly to young singles and seniors who would not need large or expensive spaces. Wermer also said he wished to encourage families to move in.

Paul Lord, who was assigned to Japantown by the San Francisco Planning Department, has assisted the BNP as a resource and “shepherd” to advise the committees. He also supports the removal of density limits, citing that much of the eastern side of the city has already done away with them.

“The standard for the city is to not have density limits,” Lord said in a phone interview. “As a planning tool, the limits are no longer deemed useful.” He said building codes would dictate what amenities allow for a livable space, while planning codes would also dictate the required number of types of units based on how many are planned to be built.

“Say you want to build 20 units, then you’ll need ‘X’ number of studios, ‘Y’ number of one bedrooms, and ‘Z’ number of two bedrooms.”

Fukuda also expressed concern about sufficient parking spaces for residents. While mass-transit would provide an alternative to car ownership, it would not mean the new influx of residents would not own cars.

“It should be noted that renowned planner, Michael Bernick … states that automobile ownership and parking was not prohibited, because while a person may take transit or bike to work, they still might need a car for (other activities),” wrote Fukuda. He did, however, say he would be open to reconsidering density for the entire Japantown if there is a “careful study.”

Lord said that the one to one parking to dwelling ratio is no longer required. He said that Japantown sits on a major transit line, the Muni 38 bus line, and is only a short distance away from other major mass transit corridors, making parking less of an issue. Wermer added that the relative proximity of Safeway and the three Japanese grocers in Japantown, and the increased popularity of car share services such as Zip Cars should ease parking needs. “The ‘everyone needs a car’ mentality is changing,” he said. “I’m sure developers will reflect on this when they make plans.”

According to Lord, Japantown will see its residential population grow. He stated that the removal of density limits is an alternative to increasing building height limits, an idea that was generally opposed by the community.

“Doing away with the density limits keeps the building heights at what they are now and provides more units to meet the needs of Senate Bill 375.”

Lord said the city planning department must adhere to the bill, which requires cities to contain its growth and prevent urban sprawl. “I want to have Japantown absorb its share of growth,” said Lord.

BNP Organizing Committee member Rose Hillson is also concerned by the proposal. She learned of the density proposal when she attended a subcommittee meeting that was looking into the zoning of the proposed Japantown NCD. “We need to study it a bit more,” said Hillson. “We’re still not saying where (the proposed NCD will exactly cover) and we’re not sure when the public will see the completed version.”

Hillson says that time is short on examining the potential impact of the new zoning codes and to inform the public of their findings. “We should have discussed this earlier,” said Hillson. “How much time will we have to discuss this with the community?”

Organizing Committee members encouraged the community to attend the meeting on Saturday, Sept. 10 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.

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